When Kristina Ferris revisited Syracuse with her family, 20 years after studying there, she was pleasantly surprised

The structure dominates the middle of downtown in Syracuse. It clearly shares architectural DNA with the Empire State Building, only it is stretched wider than it is tall. As a graduate student, just arrived in this provincial city in upstate New York, the stunning Art Deco Niagara Mohawk building enthralled me. But I soon discovered that where other nations' cities have centres, the average American metropolis has a vacuum.

That, at least, is how it seemed to me in the 1980s. I trawled the city centre to find the best shops, bars and architecture, in order to discover the essence of Syracuse. Instead, I found parking lots, freeway intersections and a down-at-heel atmosphere. If you wanted to go shopping, the out-of-town malls were far more inviting than the two tired department stores. I dragged my friends to downtown bars on a couple of occasions, but they were either insalubrious joints or office worker's hangouts, emptying early. Eventually, I gave up with the city centre, sticking to the student neighbourhood, and relying on lifts if we went drinking or shopping elsewhere. In my second year, I got a car.

This summer, after 20 years away, I took my family to see my old haunts. Had the city's fortunes improved, or had the urban exodus continued? And if you are touring rather than studying, does Syracuse justify a four-hour drive from New York City?

First, we visited the campus, with its majestic Victorian mansions and a huge quad at its heart. At one corner of the quad is the Carrier Dome, home of Syracuse Orange, the common name for the college basketball, football and lacrosse teams. A large white arena, with inflatable Teflon-coated roof, atop University Hill, it is an imposing landmark and equally impressive inside. The largest domed stadium on a college campus, it holds 33,000 for basketball matches and 50,000 for football. My 11-year-old son was so impressed that he talked of going to an American university himself to play college basketball. So we headed down the hill to Marshall Street, the lively and spruced-up campus eating-and-shopping area, to get my aspiring jock an Orange vest.

As part of an initiative to revitalise the city centre, the university has purchased and renovated an old warehouse, transforming it into an art space and education facility. The Warehouse is on the so-called "Connective Corridor", a three-mile-long illuminated pedestrian pathway that is intended to link the campus with downtown. This sounds wonderful but is as yet just a plan. Downtown is only a mile away from the campus but few people walk it: Syracuse remains a pedestrian-unfriendly city. (Indeed, many pedestrian crossings are set diagonally across the street, so that crossing by foot takes twice as long as it should.)

What is a success, and a complete revelation, is Armory Square. Twenty years ago, this was an area of run-down warehouses. It is now a chic shopping and eating district of renovated Victorian brownstones, complete with ornate cornices and pediments. Pavement cafés, microbreweries and colourful boutiques abound. With the Niagara Mohawk building a block away, and Clinton Square, with its mercantile splendour from the city's Victorian boom, Syracuse has a downtown that is rediscovering its (slightly disconnected) soul.

A visit to the Erie Canal Museum (one of seven museums in the city centre) reveals why the city is located where it is. The museum is housed in the last remaining "weighlock" building (a structure designed to weigh canal boats and charge tolls) in the country. Until the early 19th century, Syracuse was a village, but in 1825 the canal opened, joining the Hudson river at Albany with the Great Lakes. Travelling from New York City to the Midwest, which previously took months on dangerous stagecoach routes, was now possible in weeks. The canal, which went through the centre of Syracuse, brought with it people, industry and boom times. The first Erie Canal was eventually outgrown by larger vessels, filled in and replaced by a wider barge canal on the edge of the city in 1918.

As Syracuse has enjoyed improving fortunes, so has the canal; if the second half of the 20th century saw a decline in its commercial use, then this century has seen its expansion as a leisure resource. You can take an hour-long trip or a week-long cruise. We took a dinner cruise aboard the 1953-built Emita II, a refitted 65ft-long Maine ferry, along part of the canal and along to Syracuse's lake, Onondaga. We passed skaters and cyclists in Onondaga park, kayakers and rowers on the canal, and journeyed beside deserted towpaths and lush banks. The trip also introduced us to picturesque Baldwinsville, a gem of small-town America, with colourful 19th-century houses set back from a lock where the Seneca river and Erie Canal meet.

Syracuse has an enviable location: it's 40 miles from the beaches of Lake Ontario, and the same to the centre of the Finger Lakes; 160 miles from Niagara Falls; and 190 miles from New York City. A good base for visiting the region's highlights, then – and we took full advantage.

Niagara Falls lies near the western end of the Erie Canal. Traditionally, the Canadian side has been the place to stay, with a better view of the Horseshoe Falls. Certainly, if you like noise, neon and a kiss-me-quick ambiance, then head over the border across the Rainbow Bridge (but don't forget your passport). On the other hand, Niagara Falls US-style is more relaxed, with shorter queues for the attractions and lower hotel rates. The Maid of the Mist operates from both sides, so you don't need to cross the border for the ultimate soaking. You can't see much when the boat reaches the base of the falls, and you are rocked by 600,000 gallons of water per second in a blanket of spray, but it is certainly exhilarating. The Flight of Angels, a tethered balloon that reaches over 400ft provides stunning views to Toronto (80 miles away) on a clear day. (I'll have to take other people's word for it: my attention remained focused on my white knuckles for the 10 minutes we were aloft.)

South-west of Syracuse, the Finger Lakes stretch out like a splayed hand, hence the name. We stayed at the Inn on the Lake at the north end of 15-mile-long Canandaigua. When we arrived it was night-time; a string of lights from lakeside homes was the only thing separating the blackness of the water from the sky. A warm breeze blew over us as we watched an electrical storm gradually develop in the distance. Only when lightning bolts lit up the heavens did I notice the hills rising round the lake.

The following morning, the beauty of Lake Canandaigua was properly revealed, and we kayaked and swam under a bright, cloudless sky. The hills I had seen during the storm, as with those around the other lakes, were covered with vineyards. There are over 100 wineries in the region, all happy to accept visitors for tasting sessions. The award-winning Dr Frank winery at the Y-shaped Keuka Lake impressed the most, with its 2006 dry riesling. Country stores and pick-your-own farms also abound, many owned by Amish families who can be seen driving horses and buggies around Finger Lakes villages. Shops in Penn Yann, at the north of Keuka Lake, even have hitching posts outside for the horses. We stopped at Weaver-View Farms, an Amish country store just west of Seneca Lake, where Mrs Weaver sells preserves, quilts and hand-made furniture.

It seems that Syracuse is the perfect gateway to New York State, and if the Armory Square effect spreads, the future looks as bright as the orange of the college basketball strip.

Traveller's guide


Virgin Holidays (0870 2202 707; www.virginholidays.co.uk) offers seven-night fly-drive tours of upstate New York from £757 per person, including flights from Heathrow, car hire and accommodation.

New York JFK is served from Heathrow by BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk); Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com); and Kuwait Airways (020-7412 0008; www.kuwait-airways.com); Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com) from Liverpool; and Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) from Gatwick. Newark is served by BA from Heathrow; Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com) from a range of UK airports; and Delta (0845 600 0950; www.delta. com) from Gatwick. JetBlue (001 801 365 2525; www.jetblue.com) flies between JFK and Syracuse, otherwise it's around a four-hour drive from New York City.

More information

New York State Tourism: 020-7629 6891; www.nylovesu.co.uk